Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Towelhead

Posted By on Wed, Sep 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM

There's a difference between provocative and profound, and writer-director Alan Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under) seems to confuse the two. Towelhead, as its in-your-face title implies, sets out to shock the audience with its sexually frank and purposefully dark coming-of-age story. Presenting a scornful view of American suburbia, Ball's graceless and contrived exercise in cynicism is also unexpectedly honest and, at times, quite moving. It's the kind of emotionally schizophrenic work that's created by promising young filmmakers, not middle-aged Hollywood fixtures.

Based on the novel Towelhead by Alicia Erian and set during the first Gulf War, Ball's film follows 13-year-old Jasira (newcomer Summer Bishil), the daughter of a neurotically selfish mother (Maria Bello) who ships her off to live with her abusive Lebanese-immigrant father (Peter Macdissi). A NASA engineer, Rafit lives in a well-groomed Houston suburb surrounded by Bush-cheering rednecks. There's an odious little boy and his predatory Army-reservist dad (Aaron Eckhart), an overprotective pregnant neighbor (Toni Colette), a black boyfriend and, of course, the relentless taunts of bigoted schoolmates. In other words, it's another example of Ball's obsessively bleak view of suburban decay.

Caught in this exhaustive obstacle course of human ugliness, Jasira experiences the first pangs of sexual desire, encouraging Ball to launch a full-out assault on our puritanical sense of propriety. Porno magazines, masturbation, bloody tampons, used condoms and, tragically, rape are all stirred into a heady broth of claustrophobic melodrama.

And there's the rub. It's tempting to dismiss Ball's campy manipulations as immature and heavy-handed but it would be a mistake to ignore his sincere presentation of dysfunctional sexuality and confused adolescence. Beyond its knee-jerk desire to outrage and shock, Towelhead pointedly indicts America for bombarding young women with an aggressively sexualized identity then punishing them for responding to it.

Ball's script is perversely evenhanded in its sympathies and condemnation of its characters, which is refreshing. But it'd be a stretch to say any of them come close to being three-dimensional. The writer-director has the unfortunate view that people fall into one of two camps: unhealthy repression or soulful liberation. Only Rafit, whose hypocritical tyranny is played as often for laughs as scares, is allowed the suggestion of change. The rest of Ball's creations are conflicted but static, unbending archetypes with just enough shading to distinguish them from the suburban pack.

Thankfully, the terrific cast blunts Ball's lesser instincts, providing each role with gravity and depth. The standout is Eckhart, who manages to shoehorn some desperate humanity into his depraved predator. Only Bishil comes up short, a beautiful cipher whose choices are inferred rather than informed.

Much of what makes Towelhead unnecessarily coarse is Ball's tentative work behind the camera. As a first-time director, he shows little talent for dramatic composition or finesse. He rarely lets the image speak for itself and is unable to evoke the necessary mind-of-a-child viewpoint that subject matter like this requires. Working against his strength — ensemble drama — he isolates his characters in one-on-one exchanges that lack the dynamism of colliding emotions; something Six Feet Under exploited to marvelous effect.

Still, for all its shortcomings, Towelhead attempts to challenge its audience with uncomfortable issues, and takes seriously the hormonal time bomb of female adolescence. Ball's dramatic instincts may be arrested by immaturity but his desire to pillory the mean little suburbs — which proudly fly American flags while ignoring privacy and cheerleading bigotry and war — is grist for his liberal audience's mill. When you consider the blandness of most studio-produced dramas, a little outrage can be pretty revitalizing.

Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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